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In Memoriam: Late A. K. Isbister, M.A., LL.B., Honorary Member

by George Bryce

MHS Transactions, Series 1, No. 8
Read 26 July 1883

This article was published originally in MHS Transactions by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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The winter before the last one Sunday morning by appointment we met Mr. Isbister in London to go to service in the Temple Church. Mr. Isbister was a barrister and so had a right to all the privileges connected with the legal profession including admission to this church. Turning in at Temple Bar, ... entering by the passage we came to the ground and enclosure of the middle temple of which Mr. Isbister was a member. There lay stretching through courts and gateways eastward the buildings of the inner temple. Tradition says there was once an outer temple though nothing trustworthy remains of it. These temples are now the abodes of the legal fraternity, whose predecessors were the Knight Templars, a society of military clerics. The master of the temple is the well known Dr. Vaughan, the clergyman who officiates in the Temple Church, who has as a privilege freedom from the supervision of the Bishop of London. We entered the church which is one of the few remaining round churches of England. ... Coming out to Fleet street we crossed it and through a few passages came to Bolt Court. For many years, Mr. Isbister, in connection with the educational work he had in hand, occupied offices—the very rooms, indeed, where the great Dr. Johnson had lived. Indeed it was in Bolt Court that the burly English man-of-letters died. Homeward bound, we left the part of London whose every foot was instinct with memories of dramatists, poets and literateurs, and wewere glad to have had so kindly a guide. This was our first acquaintance, though but preliminary to other opportunities of knowing and appreciating the man more fully.


Alexander Kennedy Isbister was born in 1822 at Cumberland House, on the Saskatchewan. On both sides he was Orkney descent, as his name indicates. He had also a trace of Indian blood in his veins. He was thus thoroughly identified with the earlier population of the country, and always retained that strong love for the land of his birth so characteristic of the natives of the Northwest. It is somewhat remarkable the part taken by people from the Orkney Islands in the earlier history of the country. They did a large part of the severe pioneer work which made the Hudson’s Bay Company strong. ... Young Isbister was the son of an officer in the Hudson’s Bay Company, whose family, on the father being killed in the company’s service at Norway House, settled in the parish of St. Andrews about the year 1833—alongside the rapids of the Red River. On the maternal side Alexander Isbister was a Kennedy. His mother is an elder sister of Capt. Kennedy, of St. Andrews, well known as one of Lady Franklin’s captains, who delivered two most entertaining lectures on his “Arctic Explorations” before this society. Old Mrs. Isbister lived with her son till his death. She is now an old lady of 83. In the winter of 1881 she was still hale and hearty, and had a passionate longing to see the Red River of her early life. It is with sorrow her friends will learn that she is not now in such good health. The Kennedy’s were formerly proprietors of some of the islands between the Orkney’s and the mainland, notably the Island of Stroma. At the time of the Pretender, when so many estates changed hands in Scotland, one brother favored King George and the other Prince Charlie. The fortunes of war were in favor of the other line, and the Kennedys, of whom we are speaking, as the subject of our sketch, in relating the ins and outs of the matter with great glee confessed, were left “out in the cold.” Mr. Isbister, by the Kennedy side, is related as a third cousin or so to the Hon. A. G. B. Bannatyne, and was a nephew by marriage of Chief Factor Christie.


Settled on the Red River at the age of eleven, the subject of our sketch showed an early inclination for study, and soon was sent to the nucleus of what has now become St. John’s College, in this city, then known as the “McCallum School”. Spending a few years here the young student, at about the age of sixteen, entered the service of the Hudson’s Bay Company as an articled clerk. His lot was cast in the far-off Mackenzie district, and here he gained his acquaintance with the fur trade and the company’s affairs, so useful to him in his after career. With strong desire to obtain a professional education the young clerk, having served his three years time in the company’s offices left the service and returned to Red River. Having spent a year in “the settlement” as Assiniboia was called up to only a few years ago, he left his native land for England in 1842, and though ardently attached to it never had the privilege of seeing it again.


The well-developed fur trader now entered upon scenes of a different kind from the remote Mackenzie river. He was a successful student, and took both his M.A. and L.L.B. degrees. In appearance he was stalwart, standing about 6 feet 3 inches, and was a fine looking man. He was a man of excellent address, of very great conversational power, and enthusiastically devoted to any cause he espoused. After a successful student career he entered upon the study of law, and in due time became an English barrister. His mind was upon his native country, and at that time the questions arising in England were peculiarly interesting to the young and the ardent. It was a few years after the passing of the Reform Bill, and it was in the air to examine into the affairs of


For the Young man of high hopes and a broad sense of justice not to be a Liberal and a Reformer is unnatural. It is as men get older and find that the world is not so easily set to rights as they had supposed that they become conservative. One can quite imagine the ardency with which one, who retained even to the last buoyancy and hopefulness as to the triumph of true and just principles, entered on the work of bringing his fellow-countrymen to enjoy all the rights of British subjects. Mr. Isbister related to the writer his experience in dealing with some of the affairs of a society called the “New England Society,” which was supposed to have outgrown its usefulness, indicating a thoroughgoing and practical turn of mind.


With great perseverance in England and on the Red River the case was worked up by which Representative Institutions were to replace the Hudson’s Bay Company Regime. The Hudson’s Bay Company’s rule, it must be said, was patriarchal, on the whole kindly, but could not have stood the strain of a larger population, or a people less docile than the English half-breeds of Red River. Mr. Isbister ardently undertook the task of liberalizing the government of Red River, and throwing open the fertile land of the Northwest to the world—a land too good to be kept as the preserve for bears and foxes. Petition after petition from the people of Red River was sent to the British Government by the hands of Mr. Isbister, and he became known as the champion of popular rights for the people of the settlement. He had acquired a quantity of Hudson’s Bay company stock and so was enabled to speak from a more influential standpoint. The excitement culminated in the appointment of a committee by the Imperial Parliament, the results of which are embodied in the Blue Book of 1857. In a general sketch such as this, it is unnecessary to enter into a statement of the details of the struggle. The Hudson’s Bay Company wisely discerned the signs of the times, made excellent terms with the Government, and has now in a wholehearted and earnest way thrown in its lot with the country, and become one of the strongest forces in its development. Mr. Isbister informed the writer that he had long ago made up his quarrels with the Hudson’s Bay company. He looked back with no regrets on the part he had taken, but he recognized in the Hudson’s Bay Company an honourable and useful corporation. As a retired official of the Company he had the feeling of attachment that is so strong a feature of all its employees.


Mr. Isbister had, however, a strong leaning to the cause of education. It was not strange, that one of his ardent and sympathetic mind should be fond of teaching. It is surely one of the most honourable and useful of professions. For many years in Bolt Court he labored in connection with an education institution. In 1851 he became a Fellow of an organization since grown to large dimensions, “The College of Preceptors.” Its object was to serve as a high class examining board to give certificates of acquaintance with certain departments of knowledge. In 1881 this board issued 11,000 certificates. Mr. Isbister was also Dean of this College of Preceptors. He was the author of several textbooks on education subjects, and up to the end of life had the responsibility of editing an educational magazine of some importance.


The generous nature of Mr. Isbister did not confine itself to sympathy for the people struggling for their rights, nor to the efforts of the young to gain an education. He gave about the time of the transfer of this Province 100 pounds sterling in American bonds, of which the interest has been used in the shape of prizes to the Public Schools of this Province and in 1881 he gave a handsome subscription to Manitoba College. It is known that for years he has been considering the propriety of establishing in his native land some useful educational institution. At one time this was thought of as a ‘Normal School’ and the University Act bears traces of an intention to provide for this on the part of the framers of the Act. Since that, the University of Manitoba has shown itself to have the “potency” for future good. Mr. Isbister was greatly delighted with the unsectarian character of the University, so thoroughly uniting all ideas in the country. He had a great desire to see the Province. He has now left a monument more enduring than brass in the splendid gift of upwards of $60,000 to the Manitoba University, and his large library which the writer had an opportunity of examining.


As a society striving to commemorate the deeds of generosity and worth of those belonging to our territory it becomes us while mingling our tears with the friends of our departed brother to yet rejoice in the honor done to us by achievements of our late Honorary member. His efforts for the cause of civil liberty: his lifelong devotion to education and every benevolent and humanizing agency: and his overflowing of generosity to this Province and the University of Manitoba make his name one that surely we shall not willingly let die.

Page revised: 20 June 2014

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